In Advance of an Upcoming Hard Rock Live Concert, Gin Blossoms Singer Reflects on the Band's 25-Year History

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click to enlarge In Advance of an Upcoming Hard Rock Live Concert, Gin Blossoms Singer Reflects on the Band's 25-Year History
Angela Oneal
Now more than 25 years removed from the release of New Miserable Experience, the major label debut from Gin Blossoms, the title feels especially appropriate, knowing now what the jangly ’90s alt-rock group went through to birth the album and bring it out to the masses.

The band spent the bulk of the past year playing the record in full, and at a concert earlier this year, frontman Robin Wilson explained to the crowd what a complicated ride it had been.

“It was a very difficult record to make. We were very young and we didn’t know what we were doing and we almost broke up in the middle of it,” he said then. “We had at the time, Doug Hopkins, our original guitar player, who we miss so terribly. So many of these great, great songs were written by Doug. and we miss him very much.”

After taking an initial stab at recording the album in Los Angeles, the band abandoned those sessions, returning to their home base of Tempe, AZ, to regroup and record some material on their own. A selection of songs from that period would be released on the Up and Crumbling EP, the title of which was a not so subtle nod to their initial struggles. Eventually going back into the trenches to resume work on their planned full-length, the group had by this time found a good collaborative working relationship and friendship with producer John Hampton, who “helped keep the band together,” Wilson shared during that same show, adding that “the band was kind of fucked up at the time, and we didn’t know if the record would ever come out.”

One can imagine that the band might have drawn inspiration for the title of New Miserable Experience, which was finally released on Aug. 4, 1992,  from their extensive journey working to get the album on tape.

“I don’t remember exactly. It was either Doug or Bill [Leen] or the two of them in conversation that came up with that,” Wilson says now during a recent phone conversation. “It was just sort of typical of our sense of humor and cynicism at the time. I wanted to call the record Jackalope, but I was soundly outvoted. New Miserable Experience, you know, it’s sort of nonsense. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything. But it did sort of capture the moment — not only for us, but I think that it sort of speaks to the time in which it was recorded.”

The band’s sense of humor was often on display just looking at its tour shirts from the '90s, which had comedic statements like “Cracker Kicked Our Ass,” “Please God Don’t Let Us See Our Ex-Girlfriends On the Road,” and ‘The Salary Remains the Same,” written in the familiar Led Zeppelin font. But Wilson’s favorite one was the shirt that they printed up for their initial touring after New Miserable Experience had been completed.

“At the time, we were like a million dollars in debt to A&M Records,” he recalls. “When the album was released, that was the first T-shirt we put out, was ‘Recoup My Ass,’ and I thought, ‘Well, we’ll never pay them back. We’re going to be in debt the rest of our lives.’”

For a good while, it looked like that might be the case. When the album came out, the chart success and record sales that all were hoping for proved to be elusive. The band continued to tour extensively, working to build a fanbase.

“We had been on the road for about eight months when the single ['Hey Jealousy'] finally took off. I remember one of the record company vice presidents calling me on the phone and he said, ‘Hey dude, your record is about to become a hit,’” Wilson remembers. “They had made a deal with MTV to make a new video for the song and the vice-president at MTV had apparently said to our label, 'Make a new video, and we will break this band.' It was busy. We had already been on the road for eight months and all of the sudden when you have a hit, things get even busier. We’re doing more magazine shoots and more press, and then, you’re doing The Tonight Show and Letterman. It was just a blur of activity.”

The band eventually detonated a total of five radio hits from the album in 1993 and 1994 with “Hey Jealousy” and “Found Out About You” landing in the top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart while the remaining three, “Mrs. Rita,” “Until I Fall Away” and “Allison Road” also performed respectably, charting in the Top 40 for mainstream rock airplay. The group’s chart victories were somewhat bittersweet as it had parted ways with Hopkins, its guitar player and one of the principal songwriters, shortly before the album had been completed.

Hopkins has writing credits on half of the album’s songs, which has been a point of critical discussion over the years. But looking at the whole of New Miserable Experience as an album, what sticks out now more than 25 years later is how solid the record is from top to bottom, arguably void of any filler tracks. It’s an album that truly represents the best of what the band collectively threw into the songwriting at the time.

“The early days were really fun. They’re exactly the sort of experience you should have as a 23-year-old in a rock band. We were playing four and five nights a week in our hometown and driving all over the Southwest; it was the real band experience,” Wilson says. “For the first few years, Doug and I were inseparable. We’d go riding skateboards and go to the waterpark. We always drove together in the car to Flagstaff, Tucson and Los Angeles. We were together a lot. [I have] really cool memories from those days [and we had] no real concept of where this was headed. [There was] no possible way to imagine that we would be in our 50s and still be together [as a group]. It was just about being the best band in Arizona and trying to live up to our heroes like R.E.M. and the Replacements. It was a very organic, real rock experience.”

The group is preparing to release Mixed Reality, its new studio album, on June 15. The record, which was recorded and produced by Don Dixon and Mitch Easter, known collectively for their work with R.E.M., brings things full circle for the group, which will spend this summer on the road with Tonic and Vertical Horizon, playing a mix of new songs and fan favorites. The tour lands at Hard Rock Live at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 14.

“I was thrilled to find out that we were going to be recording with Don Dixon and Mitch Easter at [Easter’s] studio in North Carolina. We were all really inspired. We spent about a year writing songs and doing demos,” Wilson says. “With Don and Mitch in my head, I felt really connected to my 20-year-old self. For the songs that I wrote, I feel like I kind of came up with stuff that we would have wanted to record in our earliest days. I think in a lot of ways, Mixed Reality is sort of a companion to New Miserable Experience. It feels to me like a record we would have wanted to make when we were all 25.”

Dixon says the band took "a very old-school straight-up approach and recorded on tape."

"You know, [we did all] the things that people make a big deal out of and it shouldn’t be a big fucking deal,” Dixon says with a laugh in a separate interview. “On this record, I was more of the producer, and I ended up mixing the record. Mitch just really helped record it and played some cool stuff on it. I played some cool stuff on it. I played some keyboards, and I played a little trombone, and I probably did a rhythm guitar somewhere. I did some arrangements with the Chamberlin, which is sort of the grandfather of the original Mellotron. It was fun. They were great and they worked hard. Peter Holsapple plays organ on a couple of songs. Scott [Hessel], the drummer who has been with them for a while, is really good. He’s a great secret weapon — he helped us make the record quickly.”

Wilson says he liked the approach that Dixon took.

"We made it like they used to make records," he says. "I’ve heard a number of people complain recently that nobody’s making good records anymore. You know, bands aren’t the same or whatever. I feel like for this album, we tapped into something really elemental and we did it old-fashioned. We did it as a band. For all of those people who say that nobody’s making good records these days, well, I think we did. [Laughs] I think anyone who likes R.E.M. or [Tom] Petty or Wilco, you know, I think they’re going to enjoy this record.”

“It’s very '90s sounding, in a good way,” Dixon says of the album that came out of the sessions.

Listening to Mixed Reality, one will quickly understand what he means. On songs like “Angels Fly,” and “Break,” the classic blend of Gin Blossoms harmonies comes flowing out of the speakers, and it’s a welcome transport back to the decade, while still feeling very rooted in the present.

“Face the Dark,” is a song that, as Wilson shares, began with one thing in mind, but he found that it evolved as he kept working on it.

“I thought I was writing a song about the end of my marriage. But by the time I got done with it, I felt like I was writing a song for Doug Hopkins. That’s how I see it now,” he says. “It’s really something I kind of wrote for Doug. I wanted it to feel like something that we would have wanted to play together, and I wanted it to feel like the spiritual successor to an R.E.M. record. It came out really nice.”

With “Break,” which leads off the album, Wilson found himself in an interesting zone thanks to conversations he was having with his son, Grey, who asked him about the process of songwriting, curious to know how it worked.

“I had to explain it to him the way you would to a 14-year-old,” he says. “You think about your favorite bands and what bands you want to sound like and what kind of message do you want to deliver? What sort of lyrics do you want to [write] and what do you have to say to people? What do you want to make them feel? I was in that mentality, and I wrote ‘Break.’ I knew right away that I was on to something.”

His son ended up coming to North Carolina to spend a week watching the recording sessions and appropriately enough, ended up playing tambourine on “Break” while adding handclaps to another tune. It was one highlight among many for Wilson, who really enjoyed working with the band (he gives particular praise to bassist Bill Leen, calling him one of the “VIPs” on this album, for both his songwriting and bass playing) and the pairing of Dixon and Easter.

“We’re a veteran group, so we didn’t necessarily need a lot of advice about how to perform. Don [Dixon] is really pretty animated and concerned with everyone. He was going around, ‘Are you okay? Do you need anything? How’s your mix?’ That sort of stuff. And with Mitch [Easter], it was like having Andy Warhol or some extreme hipster standing there quietly in the corner, pushing the buttons. Mitch didn’t say much, but he has this gravity around him. Just him being there meant a lot. It was a dream team and a real full circle operation for us to work with those guys. I don’t know what to expect in terms of commercial sales and whatnot. But just as a musician, as a lifelong member of this band, I’m really proud of this, and I know that we’ve done something kind of special.”

Gin Blossoms, Tonic, Vertical Horizon, 8:30 p.m. Thursday, June 14, Hard Rock Live, 10777 Northfield Rd., Northfield, 330-908-7625. Tickets: $25-$47.50,
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